People’s Supper Beginning Collective Healing With a Shared Meal

SCE reached out to Lennon Flowers, Co-founder of The People’s Supper and Co-founder & Executive Director of The Dinner Party, to talk about Catalyst Grantee The People’s Supper’s work in bringing people together across difference to break bread and take time to truly listen, not for the sake of looking the part, but to truly begin conversations about healing and human connections.

Lennon brought us up to speed on the inspiring work The People’s Supper is doing in communities across the country and reminded us that even the most ancient of approaches in work to serve others must adapt to remain relevant and effective.

Why supper? What about the experience of sharing a meal allows for the relationship building that you describe? 

We’re seeing a renaissance of dinner as “social technology” [models], fueled by people less interested in what we eat than in how we eat, why we eat, and with whom we eat.

There are models designed to welcome the stranger and to combat hate (Syrian Supper Club, Displaced Dinners, Day of Dinners). There are dinners designed to open up conversations about the barriers that separate us, including race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and class (Speaking Down Barriers, National Day of Racial Healing, Shabbat Salaam), or otherwise hard-to-talk-about subjects (Death Cafes, Death Over Dinner, Drugs Over Dinner), and those designed to spark individual and collective civic action or to highlight local innovations (On the Table, Civic Dinners, Detroit SOUP, Ben Franklin Circles). Some focus on reinventing religious ritual in the DIY age (One Table, Simple Church, Root and Branch and other “dinner churches”), and others offer simple opportunities to get to know your neighbor, as a way of combating endemic loneliness (Our Family Dinner, Table Tribes).

In different ways and for different reasons, each one [of the models] seeks to leverage the role that food has played throughout time and across traditions, as a tool for meaning-making and community-building. There’s nothing novel about shared meals: Eating together is the oldest ritual in all of the books. And that’s the point. There’s a familiarity to sharing a meal together, whoever you are and wherever you’re from. That’s why we tend to stay away from chef-led meals and high-brow cuisine. There shouldn’t be anything intimidating about sharing a meal, whether that’s backyard burgers or pizza takeout. I’m a mediocre cook on my best days. It’s about using food not as an end, but as a means—as a way of connecting to the person who put it on our plates, or to the person across the table, or of introducing ourselves and the people and places whose imprints we carry with us.

And why supper, specifically? Would a coffee or lunch be as effective?

On a practical level, it makes for a better invitation: You’re more likely to show up to a meal, than to, say, a dialogue circle. And it creates a natural rhythm to conversation:

When you need a moment to pause and consider what you want to say, or to reflect on something you’ve just heard, it helps to be able to pick up a fork.  

There have been plenty of People’s Brunches and Lunches. I tend to prefer meals simply because it affords you more time to pause, but we’re all for Beer Summits or afternoon tea, too.  

What does the typical dinner guest bring to the table at The People’s Supper? What do they walk away from the table with?

Last week, 29 people in Creede, CO, gathered for their second People’s Supper. The town has a year-round population of fewer than 400 people, and they’ve experienced deep divisions across social, political, and ideological fault lines over the last few years. They gathered with the simple goal of deepening connection, and seeing each other’s humanity over shared food and the stories and experiences that don’t tend to come up in everyday conversation, and that often transcend the labels and assumptions we make of one another.

They talked about the turning points in their lives, and dove headlong into the stories they’re afraid to share today and why. The group included a mix of liberals and conservatives, and folks from each of the faith communities in town. This time around, there was no event budget, so they made it a potluck, with no pressure to bring a dish if you didn’t have the time or capacity.

And in a lot of ways, that’s what every person at a People’s Supper is asked to bring: themselves and their own truths —  the real and often messy, vulnerable stories that got us here, as opposed to our soundbites — and a willingness to enter what we call “Brave Space”.  

We recognize that for those who’ve been most marginalized, there is no such thing as a safe space. And too often, we confuse a safe space with a comfortable space. Learning to sit with each other’s truths means we have to learn to sit with discomfort.

What you take away, I think, are three things: The first, and simplest, is connection. I don’t want to belittle that, because we’re living in what’s been described as a crisis of isolation: Loneliness is endemic, and depression rates are at an all time high. We hosted a series of suppers this fall leading up to the midterms, with folks from across the political aisle. Of survey respondents, 93% reported feeling more connected to others.

The second is empathy: Of those same survey respondents, 80% felt a rise in empathy toward people who are different from them. We like to think that we make decisions based on all the information that’s in front of us — that we’re fundamentally rational creatures. But that’s not actually true. Years of research in social psychology shows us that we make most of our decisions intuitively, and then use information to rationalize and defend those decisions. The one thing that makes a difference is having an encounter with someone that runs counter to your assumptions. That means we can’t just convince each other to change our minds, particularly when you’re talking about something that is centuries-old and baked into the fabric of our country. It requires we meet.

And third and perhaps most importantly, we want people to leave enlisted in and energized for the work ahead. Empathy, as we commonly understand it, is not enough: When it comes to race, for instance, I as a white person don’t get to just undo my own racism, and the same is true of any white person at the table. It’s on all of us to consciously intervene to undo the systems that perpetuate marginalization.

What that means is that that conversations are the starting point, not the end point. To quote a popular adage, “change moves at the speed of trust.” To again use the example of racial healing, the goal is to build the trust and relationships necessary to engage folks across difference in anti-racist work.

What has surprised you about the work?

I didn’t realize that the hard part was not what happened at each dinner, but about first, reflecting deeply on who you want at a table and why and how to get them there, and second, on what you want to see out of the experience.

It took me awhile to realize that sitting down across lines of difference is not everyone’s responsibility, nor should it be.

Too often, depolarization efforts focus on red vs. blue, liberal vs. conservative.

Many of those efforts, including ours, have found it difficult to get conservatives to the table, so we initially put our energy there. In so doing, we failed to recognize the unique burden born by those subject to present and historic marginalization, and the dangers of tokenization.

If I’m honest, I think a lot of the work we did in our first year was at best ineffectual and at worst did harm. We heard from a lot white progressive women who wanted the optics in their lives to match the values they professed to hold. An old colleague of mine coined a term: WWWLTH — White Women Who Like to Hike — to describe the majority of people who reached out to us in our early days. (And yes, I’m a white woman who likes to hike.) They wanted to sit down with a token person of color, a token Muslim, a token immigrant (preferably undocumented), and patiently nod their heads at stories of oppression, as proof that they’re as compassionate and woke as they think they are. They wanted to sit down with a token Trump supporter, and confirm that they were morally and intellectually superior. And then they wanted to take a selfie for Instagram, and be done.

That doesn’t mean that conversation isn’t a good or necessary thing. But I realized the dinner table is a means, not an end.

 Can you share a big lesson learned in your work and how you adapted to address it?

In our first year, we heard from a lot of people who wanted nothing more than to check a box: liberals who wanted to sit down with a token conservative, to prove they were as open-minded as they believed themselves to be, or — as one conservative partner of ours put it — “to actively listen to you long enough to change your mind”; white women who wanted to sit down with a person of color, in order to diversify their friend circles, or to signal that they’re among the ones who “get it”. In short, we heard from lots of people who wanted the optics of their lives to match the values they professed to hold.

We found that political polarization in the abstract is not a sufficient enough reason to gather.

In our second year, we thus began to work more deeply with people and institutions in which community members shared an acute pain point or a tangible stake in deepening relationships. We’ve worked with pastors working to extend the Communion table and build bridges across faith lines, with the Mayor’s Office in Erie, PA, on a series of racial healing suppers, and with a group of leaders in education, who operate in a highly competitive and politicized environment and feared that mistrust was inhibiting their ability to learn from one another.

While the original intent behind our project was to focus on bridging across lines of political and ideological difference, we found that even at suppers where people shared similar voting habits, difference was present across lines of race, age, class, religion, and gender identity, which shaped the contours of conversations.

We found that voting habits are not always an indicator of shared values and that there is often as much diversity within a group as there is across groups.

For all those reasons, we’ve slowly moved away from the word “bridging”. The question is simply: What needs healing here?

What’s next for The People’s Supper?

The People’s Supper began as a collaborative project created by three different organizations: The Dinner Party, the Faith Matters Network, and Hollaback!. It was meant to be a 100-day experiment; we didn’t expect to be doing this work today.

Our work right now is guided by a number of big hairy questions: How do you change the faces of who shows up, so that you’re reaching beyond the “usual suspects” and creating meaningful opportunities for folks to connect across difference? What does it look like to meet over time, rather than just once? How do those connections and conversations catalyze ongoing collaboration, and how do you use the real stories surfaced around those tables to inform, for example, a city’s diversity, equity, and inclusion policies?

From Day 1, we’ve known that we cannot heal every individual who has faced attack, nor can we bring together every American over a dinner table. How might we spark enough conversations in enough places — and the right places — to ensure that those conversations continue beyond one night, and what’s the role of storytelling in all that?